JAVMA Letter: A Trojan Horse

TNR opponents’ recent letter to the editors to JAVMA was just an excuse for promoting their witch-hunt agenda—supported, as has become their habit, with the kind of bogus “research” that fails to stand up to even moderate scrutiny. (And, I would bet, probably hasn’t actually been read by most of the letter’s co-authors.)

A recent letter to the editor, published last month in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (PDF available here), reminds me of one of the reasons I’ve never enabled comments on this blog: the likelihood that some commenters would surely hijack the conversation—pretty much any conversation, however marginally relevant—to take up their own agenda. Although I’m a proponent of open dialogue (the name of this blog is no accident), I have neither the time nor the patience for people intent on making my platform their platform.

Luckily, the JAVMA editors—dealing, as I’m sure they do, only with the most conscientious professionals—aren’t subject to such hijack attempts. Right?

Guess again.

When TNR opponents Christopher Lepczyk and his 15 co-authors “applauded” recent research promoting trap-vasectomy-hysterectomy-release over TNR, it seems they did so mostly to get a foot in door—an opportunity to assert (once again) “that feral and free-roaming cats pose myriad problems for people and the environment.” [1] Never mind the fact that the authors of the letter fail to articulate either the key flaws (see Note 1) in the TVHR model or the animal welfare issues sure to accompany the implementation of TVHR—this was a new venue in which they could trot out the same tired claims we’ve all heard before.

To support their claim that 11 years is “unacceptably long” for a TVHR program to be successful “given the depredation pressures that remaining cats place on native wildlife,” for example, Lepczyk et al. cite a paper published in late January by researchers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute—including Peter Marra, one of the co-authors of the JAVMA letter—and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. [1] Unfortunately, JAVMA readers unfamiliar with the paper’s numerous flaws are liable to think the “estimates” proposed by Marra and his colleagues were the result of legitimate research, rather than an agenda-driven, taxpayer-funded effort to undermine TNR.

And Lepczyk et al. cite another paper obviously motivated by ideology rather than science when referring to the risk free-roaming cats “pose in regard to disease spread and potentially serious human health impacts,” this time from Zoonoses and Public Health (the first of two such articles, in fact, to be published in that journal over the span of just 12 months).

All of which gives the work cited—much of which wasn’t worthy of publication in the first place—an additional air of undeserved credibility.

Still, that’s not the worst of it.

Lepczyk and co-author Cheryl Lohr (who’s also Lepczyk’s PhD student) use the JAVMA letter to burnish their credentials, citing their own badly flawed work as if it were legitimate research. Criticizing the authors of the TVHR paper for not taking into account “economic costs associated with the control methods,” for example, Lepczyk et al. argue that, “in fact, lethal control is much more cost-effective than trap-neuter-release programs.” [1]

Their evidence?

“Costs and Benefits of Trap-Neuter-Release and Euthanasia for Removal of Urban Cats in Oahu, Hawaii,” written by Lohr, Lepczyk, and Linda J. Cox, their colleague at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and published earlier this year in Conservation Biology (first available online September 25, 2012—see Note 2).

All Dollars, No Sense

As I pointed out in my December 20, 2012 post, the claim made by Lohr et al. that “implementing trap and euthanize programs was considerably cheaper than implementing trap-neuter-release programs” [2] is based on a number of assumptions that simply do not reflect real-world conditions.

Among the more dubious model inputs: 30,000 feral cats—more than they suggest are in all of Hawaii—can be removed in one year, by trappers paid $7.50–15.00/hour.

The alleged economic benefit of lethal control—which, it seems clear, was never actually in question, but rather a foregone conclusion—is derived from the depredation of wedge-tailed shearwaters, which are valued at anywhere between $1 and $15,000 “because “under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty a person may be fined up to $15,000 for killing a single protected bird. Thus, a case can be made that a single bird is worth $15,000.” [2] (Note: In my original post, I incorrectly suggested that wedge-tailed shearwaters are not protected in Hawaii. Although this species is not considered Threatened or Endangered, it is nevertheless protected under the MBTA.)

By contrast, Lohr et al. “could not include an estimate of the value of a cat’s life in the model because,” they explain, “to our knowledge no research has estimated the economic value of a feral cat to society.” Never mind the fact that, as they admit, “willingness-to-pay assessments are often used as a method of estimating the economic value of an animal,” and their own estimates suggesting that caretakers spend $61.17 per cat on food and another $56.20 on each cat’s veterinary care annually.

The expected value of the punishment

Something else Lohr et al. fail to consider: the likelihood of such fines being imposed on a caretaker or organization involved with TNR. For years now, TNR opponents (including Lepczyk) have been playing the MBTA and ESA (Endangered Species Act) card [3-5]—even misrepresenting their own writing on the subject—as if repeated references could make up for the simple fact that there’s never been a single TNR-related case brought under either act.

Discussing their “assumption […] that the level of punishment set by Congress for the taking of Threatened and Endangered organisms tells us something about how citizens of the United States, and by inference, people in general, value T&E organisms,” Joshua G. Eagle and David R. Betters refer to three “problems with this approach.” [6] Among them: “the expected value of the punishment.”

“Statistics concerning the actual number of ESA violators that would be apprehended could not have been known to the authors of the ESA. Again, it will have to be assumed that some sense of this number was incorporated into the process of setting punishment amounts… It should be noted that achieving a probability at or near one would probably require considerable costs in terms of both apprehension and conviction.” [6]

No doubt the same logic applies to the MBTA: the $15,000 fine does not, contrary to what Lohr et al. suggest, imply a value of $15,000 per bird, but rather reflects both the (low) probability of violators being apprehended and the (high) costs associated with apprehension and conviction.

A far more rigorous economic analysis, conducted recently by a team of researchers as part of a population modeling project for the Alliance for Contraception in Cats and Dogs, reveals very different findings. Projected over seven years, the cost of lethal methods are 4.5–9 times greater than TNR (as shown in the following chart). [7]

TR = trap and remove; TNR = trap-neuter-return; C = “connected” population (with cats moving in and out); Iso = isolated population. Assumptions for TR: staff time to trap, five-day holding period, drugs for “euthanasia,” and disposal of body; assumptions for TNR: volunteer trappers/transportation/aftercare and cost of surgery. For additional details, see Simulating Different Approached to Managing Free-Roaming Cat Populations, presented at the 2013 National Council on Pet Population Research Symposium Cats: The Ins and Outs: Improving their Future Through Research.

Cost of killing

Not only do the assumptions made by Lohr et al. defy common sense and run counter to sound economic analysis, they deny the realities of well-documented eradication efforts. Lohr et al. suggest that 30,000 cats—from every remote corner of Hawaii—can be “euthanized” within a single year for $20–29 million, or $667–967/cat.

Not surprisingly, they make no mention of eradication “successes” elsewhere (and, curiously, never use the term eradication, as if that’s not, in fact, what they’re referring to). Also not surprising: their work doesn’t stand up very well next to what we know about these efforts.

On barren, uninhabited Marion Island, for example—which, at 115 square miles, is the largest island from which cats have been eradicated—it took 19 years to exterminate approximately 2,200 cats—using feline distemper, poisoning, hunting and trapping, and dogs. [8] On Ascension Island, roughly one-third the size of Marion, it cost approximately $2,161/cat (in 2012 dollars) to eradicate an estimated 635 cats over 27 months. (Nearly 40 percent of the island’s pet cats were accidentally killed in the process, which, as one report noted, “caused public consternation.” [9])

By comparison, the eight main islands of Hawaii alone cover 6,430 square miles.

All of which demonstrates quite clearly that the various assumptions made by Lohr et al. are indefensible—and their conclusions unworthy of serious consideration. Put another way: this nonsense should never have been published, period.

The reference to “Costs and Benefits of Trap-Neuter-Release” was not, however, what I found most objectionable about the JAVMA letter.

(In)Human(e) Dimensions

“The authors suggest that lethal control is unacceptable to most people,” argue Lepczyk et al., referring to the Tufts researchers responsible for the TVHR model, “but a recent study demonstrated that many stakeholder groups accept humane lethal control measures for feral cats.” [1]

Really?

Now, anybody familiar with the sort of vile comments that routinely accompany online stories about TNR or free-roaming cats (another reason I don’t permit comments) knows that some people are in favor of lethal methods. And I won’t bother to address the use of the term humane here other than to say that it’s disingenuous at best—or, more likely, a deliberate attempt at avoiding well-deserved pushback.

So it wasn’t the claim itself but that “recent study” reference that caught my eye. The paper in question, “Desires and Management Preferences of Stakeholders Regarding Feral Cats in the Hawaiian Islands,” to be published before year’s end in Conservation Biology, is by none other than Lohr and Lepczyk. And based very closely, I presume, upon the paper “Who Wants Feral Cats in the Hawaiian Islands and Why?,” presented by Lohr (see Note 3) as part of the 2012 Vertebrate Pest Conference’s program dedicated to “human dimension” research.

If so, it appears those stakeholders didn’t know they were responding favorably to lethal control measures at all.

The unknown unknowns

I can’t be sure from Lohr’s VPC paper, as it apparently doesn’t include all of her survey questions, but it’s clear from the questions that are included: there’s no mention of lethal control as such. Indeed, the closest we get is this: Would you support the removal or relocation of feral cats away from areas with threatened or endangered fauna?

And the results, shown in the following table, do suggest widespread support among various stakeholder groups.

But what exactly are all these respondents actually supporting? This is the fundamental flaw with surveys of this kind: we have no idea what these responses actually mean.

Those familiar with the issue, of course, do know, that removal and relocation are often used as than euphemistic terms for lethal control measures. (Note that the Animal Welfare and Feeders (see Note 4) category are associated with the lowest level of support for permanent removal and greatest support for relocation >500 meters away, perhaps suggesting such an awareness.) To most respondents, though, removal and relocation probably sound like harmless options.

And how much can we expect those participating in such a survey to know about the abundance and/or location of threatened and endangered species? Those in the Conservation Professionals category (disproportionately represented in the survey, at more that 46 percent) likely have a good sense of such things, but what about the general public? After all, threatened and endangered are very specific conservation status designations.

Respondents lacking familiarity with the location—or even the presence of such species—are faced with a largely unanswerable question. And they’re likely to answer differently if they think cats should be removed from just a handful of sensitive areas—rather than from an entire island.

Again, we have little understanding of what respondents were thinking—and therefore supporting—when they answered Lohr’s survey questions.

The problem is, Lohr and Lepczyk seem to think they do have such an understanding—and they’re fully prepared to make policy recommendations based on this (mis)understanding. Among the most unsettling: “that management goals be very carefully worded, avoiding terms like eradication or control, replacing them with reduced abundance or density, which data suggest better represent the desires of the majority of the public.” [10]

The desires of the public?

Not only does Lohr’s research tell us next to nothing about what the public really wants, it perpetuates the misunderstanding of “management” issues—among the general public as well as conservation professionals—that’s been carefully cultivated by those who promote the Culture of Killing.

An increased (mis)understanding

Most of the questions Lohr included in her survey, the stated goal of which was “an improved understanding of which stakeholders want feral cats in the Hawaiian Islands and why,” focused not on management options, but on “the abundance and potential impacts of feral cats.” [10] But here, too, there’s little reason to think the results reflect even the most basic level of understanding.

“Using a 5-point bipolar scale,” Lohr asked respondents to answer the following 10 questions:

  • Are feral cats culturally important or valuable animals to you?
  • Are feral cats economically important or valuable animals in Hawaii? Do they generate income or revenue? (Yes, this seems to have been considered one question.)
  • Are feral cats are enjoyable to see or hear in the wild in Hawaii?
  • Whether or not you see a feral cat, do you benefit from knowing that they persist in Hawaii?
  • Do feral cats damage people’s property or source of income?
  • Do feral cats pose a health or safety risk for people?
  • Do feral cats pose a risk for native animals or plants?
  • Do feral cats contaminate or degrade the soil or water?
  • In the last two years has the number of feral cats has increased in your area?
  • How frequently do you see feral cats in the area where you live?

As I discussed in a March 2012 blog post following the Vertebrate Pest Conference, these are really trick questions—but not in the usual sense.

Take the one about feral cats being enjoyable to see (optional responses include: very much, somewhat, no opinion, very little, and none at all.) Ask me when I see that my colony cats are all accounted for and appear healthy, and I’ll give you one answer. Ask me when I spot a new arrival, though, or one of my regulars appears to be ill or injured, and you’ll get a very different answer.

And if I zoom out to see the big picture? Seen in contrast to the alternative—lethal roundups—of course I enjoy seeing these cats, or any outdoor cats.

So, how do Lohr and Lepczyk know how to interpret such a range of responses?

They don’t, of course. If only they’d stop suggesting they do—stop claiming that they have even the most rudimentary understanding of what any stakeholder group wants when it comes to managing the population of free-roaming cats.

And stop using public funding to pursue such misguided “research.”

The two projects discussed here were, I know from documents obtained through a FOIA request, funded by a $60,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture; additional funding for the survey work was, acknowledges Lohr in “Who Wants Feral Cats in the Hawaiian Islands and Why?,”  provided to Lepczyk by the “Hawaii Department of Forestry and Wildlife.” (This seems to be a reference to the Division of Forestry and Wildlife, part of the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources—and the agency for whom Fern Duval, another co-author of the JAVMA letter, works as a wildlife biologist.)

Wait and see

As I say, it’s possible that the version of Lohr’s survey work that’s being published in Conservation Biology will reveal more than what was included in her VPC paper—but I doubt it. After all, the VPC audience would have been an ideal venue for the big announcement that “many stakeholder groups accept humane lethal control measures for feral cats.” Why would Lohr hold back such an important finding?

I guess we’ll just have to see what claims Lohr and Lepczyk make in “Desires and management preferences of stakeholders regarding feral cats in the Hawaiian Islands.”

Social Science Meets Wildlife Science

To be clear, I’m not criticizing all human dimensions work. On the contrary, I see great value in applying research methods commonly used by social scientists to the study of issues related to our co-existence with non-human animals. But such endeavors are especially vulnerable to researcher bias, whether intentional or not.

“If research begins with questionnaires,” explain Rebecca Drury, Katherine Homewood, and Sara Randall, in their 2011 paper “Less is more: the potential of qualitative approaches in conservation research,” (PDF available here) “there is no way of knowing whether closed questions are being responded to at face value, and accessing genuine issues underlying respondents’ attitudes and behaviour, or are simply perpetuating the worldview of the questionnaire designers.” [11]

“Policy based on structured but poorly grounded approaches,” argue the authors,
may backfire.”

In “Understanding and Improving Attitudinal Research in Wildlife Sciences,” Robert A. McCleery and his co-authors emphasize the importance of a rigorous approach.

“A central theme of human dimension research is identifying stakeholders’ responses and interpreting them. We argue that, all too often, research articles elaborate on the different options available for managers to take in response to a problem. While informative, there must be more attention placed on the actual social research.” [12]

For McCleery et al., the problem goes well beyond poorly worded questions, or even the larger issue of using surveys in place of “qualitative methods applied by trained researchers,” which, as Drury et al. point out, “can constitute valuable valid research findings on matters critical to conservation research and to designing successful conservation initiatives, which cannot be effectively researched in any other way.” [11]

“We contend,” explain McCleery et al., “that many of the authors of these [human dimension] studies portray an inadequate understanding of attitudes and their social psychological frameworks important for examining when and how attitudes relate to behaviors.”

“Behavior is only one response to an attitude,” explain McCleery et al., “and attitudes may not correlate well with behaviors.”

“Attitudes alone do not directly affect behaviors and sometimes can be weakly correlated. Another common shortcoming in wildlife attitudinal research occurs when conclusions state what behavior will happen without having a relevant research link to behavior. A common example of this is when attitudes about management actions are assessed and conclusions drawn about actual support or acceptance of various management actions.” [12, in-text citations omitted]

Sound familiar?

Even if Lepczyk and Lohr did accurately assess respondents’ attitudes, there’s no reason to think they gained an understanding of their behaviors (current or future). (This is no surprise, really. Despite widespread “support” for renewable energy, for example, NIMBY attitudes mean “many schemes encounter fierce opposition.”)

McCleery et al. “believe researchers need to define what they want to know or predict and under what condition these predictions are applicable.”

“If a researcher wants to measure support for a management action, they must first define the variable support. Is support participation in activity, voting behavior, positive statements in the press, or a measure of the internal feelings people have? Additionally, researchers should also indicate under what conditions their variables (e.g., participation, voting, statements in the press) apply. For example, are predictions of participation valid if the management plan is not executed properly or if it rains during high visitation times, etc. Vaguely defined variables, scope condition, and survey questions (e.g., Do you support a particular wildlife program?) will likely yield vague, unusable results. [12]

Again, this sounds awfully familiar.

Even if Lohr and Lepczyk do have evidence of “many stakeholder groups accept[ing] humane lethal control measures for feral cats,” what does that support involve? Will residents of Hawaii vote for politicians who promote eradication programs? And will they pay for such programs—especially once they learn of the true costs involved?

Not likely. Not when they know the truth.

•     •     •

For JAVMA’s editors to publish the letter by Lepczyk et al. in its entirety, essentially providing the authors with another platform to promote their witch-hunt agenda, was simply irresponsible. And an insult to readers—at least some of whom know pseudoscience when they see it.

And I’m sure I’m not alone when I say: we’re sick and tired of seeing this kind of work endorsed by professionals who ought to know better.

Note 1. According to researchers with the Alliance for Contraception in Cats and Dogs: “The evidence for the success of TVHR in this study depends on assumptions related to the reproductive physiology and behavioral ecology of domestic cats that, in our view, do not seem to be supported by available empirical evidence and remain to be better understood.” (PDF available from the ACC&D website.)

Note 2. The online publication date is of some interest, as this paper was cited in a bizarre attempt to correct a citation in a paper—for which Lepczyk was, again, co-author—published three weeks prior to the publication of “Costs and Benefits of Trap-Neuter-Release.” In other words, after being called out for a bogus citation, the authors (including Lepczyk) cited work that wasn’t published until after their own paper was published.

Note 3. Curiously, Lepczyk’s name is on the paper as well, although the first-person singular pronoun I is used throughout.

Note 4. Which seems to include people who feed community cats and/or wild birds—it’s not entirely clear from Lohr’s VPC paper.

Literature Cited

1. Lepczyk, C.A., et al., Feral cat management (letter to the editor). Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2013. 243(10): p. 1391–1392.

2. Lohr, C.A., L.J. Cox, and C.A. Lepczyk, Costs and Benefits of Trap-Neuter-Release and Euthanasia for Removal of Urban Cats in Oahu, Hawaii. Conservation Biology, 2013. 27(1): p. 64–73. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2012.01935.x

3. Lepczyk, C.A., et al., What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al. Conservation Biology, 2010. 24(2): p. 627–629. http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/pdf/Lepczyk-2010-Conservation Biology.pdf

4. Hatley, P.J., Feral Cat Colonies in Florida: The Fur and the Feathers Are Flying, 2003, University of Florida Conservation Clinic: Gainesville, FL.

5. Winter, L., Popoki and Hawai’i’s Native Birds. ‘Elepaio: Journal of the Hawaii Audubon Society, 2003. 63(6)

6. Eagle, J.G. and D.R. Betters, The endangered species act and economic values: a comparison of fines and contingent valuation studies. Ecological Economics, 1998. 26(2): p. 165–171. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S092180099700061X

7. Zawistowski, S., Simulating different approaches for managing free-roaming cat populations, in 2013 National Council on Pet Population Research Symposium Presentations: CATS: The Ins and Outs: Improving their Future Through Research2013, Society of Animal Welfare Administrators Tempe, AZ.

8. Bloomer, J.P. and M.N. Bester, Control of feral cats on sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Indian Ocean. Biological Conservation, 1992. 60(3): p. 211–219. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-48XKBM6-T0/2/06492dd3a022e4a4f9e437a943dd1d8b

9. Ratcliffe, N., et al., The eradication of feral cats from Ascension Island and its subsequent recolonization by seabirds. Oryx, 2010. 44(01): p. 20–29. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S003060530999069X

10. Lohr, C.A. and C.A. Lepczyk, Who Wants Feral Cats in the Hawaiian Islands and Why?, in 25th Vertebrate Pest Conference, R.M. Timm, Editor 2012, University of California, Davis: Monterey, CA. p. 83–88.

11. Drury, R., K. Homewood, and S. Randall, Less is more: the potential of qualitative approaches in conservation research. Animal Conservation, 2011. 14(1): p. 18–24. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-1795.2010.00375.x

12. McCleery, R.A., et al., Understanding and Improving Attitudinal Research in Wildlife Sciences. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 2006. 34(2): p. 537–541. http://dx.doi.org/10.2193/0091-7648(2006)34%5B537:UAIARI%5D2.0.CO;2

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